Nicholas Brembre 17

by socalledstories

There was a hail storm preying on London. As Nicholas left home he saw nothing but blue sky, and yet the darkest of clouds found time to erupt before he reached the Custom House. The party found refuge in the church yard of St Michael Paternoster, where they huddled like children under a tiny tree. Gombert stood with the horses in the street, pressed hard against the side of the church. But he fared hardly worse than the rest of the party. The hail turned to rain and then both were gone. Nicholas stood damp and stung on the drowned grass and waited while his servants added to the puddles in the yard. Across the street two brightly coloured men – one red, one yellow – were tipping grain into sacks in the doorway of a warehouse. The grains sat waiting, like golden beads, or split-pea soup, or like sunlight. The sound as they were scooped and bagged, however, denied these possibilities. They had become thrusts of the wind, or boats sliding on gravel, or instruments shaken to accompany a dance. The men worked on with no idea of being watched. Gombert, meanwhile, had wiped down the bags and the saddles and stood waiting for something to be said. Congratulations? Further complaint? Orders to jump in the river?

It began to rain again. One of the workmen pulled at a sack that had slid out from the cover of the warehouse. Gombert stopped crowing over a job that was now undone and allowed his master to mount.

Nicholas pulled his sight from the street to the city as they moved along. Through toothy gaps he could see the fearsome incisor atop St Paul’s. The tower supporting it is cut by trios of arches. He imagined angels standing one in each and watching over the city. The cathedral is like a mother among many children. The tiny feet run here and there taking little heed of the parent, but never forgetting it is there.

Before long they could see water between the walls of the warehouses, to add to that which was falling through the air and running down their necks. They were close to the wool wharf, which had been bought by John Chircheman when Nicholas was first made collector of customs on wool. John built the Custom House there but he was a few years about it. Nicholas remembered his Norfolk reputation for generating effort when speed would be preferred. Once opened, however, it proved very convenient, even more so in the following year when he added a latrine. The wool could be weighed by the enormous tron, although John himself gained the immediate benefit of this measure through the fees he charged. For Nicholas the benefit came through the ease of collecting the customs, which followed on from the weighing of the wool. Through the customs he gained repayment of loans he had made to the king. Usury is not favoured in Christendom but such a sin is hard to measure when the return is far enough from its origin. A loan to the king was so much more than just a financial transaction. It was promotion for the merchant, a mark of his significance, and it was a boon for the city. The city needed royal patronage and it did not want interference. A king dependent on loans from citizens was a king who left the city be.

Nicholas had arranged to meet his deputy at the Custom House. He needed to see that everything was happening as it should. Merchants were capable of bending order to their own shape and the deputy could be a little too relaxed, imaginative even, in his response. In other ways he was dependable enough. His long experience of working in royal households was useful in dealing with those who overrated their importance. He always smiled at them and spoke with respect, but there was sedative in that smile and poison in the words. He had such a way of bringing people down without their knowing they had been attacked. Nicholas tried to remember some of the sweet killer phrases, but they always hardened and broke in his mouth.

Nicholas and Geoffrey sat down on a bench against the back wall of the Custom House and ordered some wine. Nicholas had refused to take any liquor until the task was done and Geoffrey had observed the prohibition while scratching his ear. Now they indulged and the tension between them fuddled away.

‘Sir Nicholas, if you were an animal, which would you be?’

‘I am an animal. My wife would have me as a slug, no doubt, and perhaps that is correct in comparison to the greatness of God. But I like to think that I have claws and teeth and that I can use them to survive in this world and to prosper.’

‘A fox, then.’

‘Perhaps.’

‘A fox uses his cunning as well as his claws. You are a clever man, Sir Nicholas.’

‘And what would you be, Geoffrey?’

‘I would like to be an eagle soaring across the sky and spying on all that occurs. But instead I am earthbound, or near to it, and must sing from one place.’

‘I knew it: you’re a cock! I’ve seen you preening yourself and I’ve heard you tell tales to characters who could well enough have come from a farmyard. I hear you tell them well.’

‘In these times a man, or a cock, can tell tales to many more characters than are close enough to hear his words.’

‘You speak of paper, that glorious invention! But how many people read French, Latin or Greek?’

‘Less than now read English.’

‘True, I read English and it is a great freedom.’

‘I feel the but in your argument.’

‘English is not a language of great beauty, although what is written in it may inform us quicker than any other.’

‘So, we cannot sing in our own tongue?’

‘What is our tongue? I heard more French in my childhood and I read Latin and some Greek. No English appears in the Guildhall records.

‘You are right, but your eyes hardly turn in their sockets. In London there live fifty thousand people who speak nothing but English from sunrise to set.’

‘But what does that have to do with paper? None of these people know how to read. That is why there are story-tellers and mistery plays and sermons.’

‘Do you read to your family and your servants, Sir Nicholas?’

‘Yes, I do. It is one of my greatest pleasures.’

‘But you do not read to them in Latin or Greek.’

‘I wish I could.’

‘There! Now that’s the centre of it. Why would it be better to read in Latin or Greek?’

‘Surely all great poets have used these tongues.’

‘There is a poet of the Italian tongue whose reputation spreads. And another who writes stories in prose – a novel idea! Perhaps the modern world is claiming its own. You and I, Nicholas, are of an age. We have seen wonders in our lifetime. Ground-breaking battles, the wisdom and folly of kings, the fury of great nobles and of the peasantry, the extinction of half the world through the plague. Some of these things we have seen because we were there and others we have seen through paper and ink.’

‘I see. The need to communicate outdoes the need for beauty. You have a point and it is perhaps a point that sharpens now in this dramatic time. Has any other lifespan seen such change? You and I, of common birth, have had success that would have been little expected in the past. And what will we achieve tomorrow?’

‘Little on my part, I fear.’ Geoffrey took a long draft to empty his cup. ‘Thank you for your confidence, Sir Nicholas, but my fortunes are fading and I am no longer so well placed at court. It is quite likely this will be my last turn as collector of customs. I will go back to Kent and what little mark I have made on the city will rub away.’

‘Are things so bad? I had no sense of it. You have always had good standing at Westminster. What of your family?’

‘Philippa is ill and gasps for air at Aldgate, Sir Nicholas, and her sister is too much in the company of John of Lancaster. I am no longer so keen on that connection.’

‘The fortunes of the Duke are also fading. The king is growing into his role and his uncle is no longer wanted. I am glad of it.’

‘The king is growing, that’s true. You have been loyal to him, Nicholas.’

‘Yes, indeed, ever since I saw him on Smithfield face to face with the rebels.’

‘That was bravery indeed, the bravery of a child facing a many-headed monster. It will be hard to face the petty intrigues of royal life after such a fantastic start.’

‘He has his work to do, as does every other man – or boy for that matter.’

‘True enough. He was born to cold hard wealth and must pay by telling the rest of us what to do. That is not a fate to be envied. God give you good day, Sir Nicholas.’

The wine had all gone and both men were taking to their feet, Nicholas one step ahead.

‘I will see you at the next inspection. The lord keep you, Geoffrey.’

Work was the condition placed upon man by God. Nichol’s father said that it was obedience, but experience showed that it was work. Obedience could be dodged with luck but work could not. There were many strictures with regard to cleanliness of thought, attitude to authority or correctness of belief where compliance could not be measured. But it was plain to see when a hallway had not be swept or a Latin passage not learned well enough to be recited. Work was the being of man. His toil in the fields made him the provider of food, and yet brought him mainly blisters and a bent back. It did not bring him wealth, at least not in weight of gold.

The cleric worked through prayer, feeder of the soul. All that effort to please God, to intercede for the faithful, for souls in purgatory, for guidance of sinners yet to die. Even the pardoner made some effort at his crooked trade, may he gain his reward in hell.

The work of the great lords, however, has drifted since the days when they were ever in armour and set to defend the rest of us from attack. In the days of Arthur great tournaments filled the moments when genuine foes were not at hand, be they Picts, Danes, Romans, Frenchmen or dragons. Nowadays the enemy was less demanding, but avoided nonetheless. It was many years since the old king and his eldest son had triumphed over the French. John of Gaunt struggled to raise a force against Castile, and most other noblemen kept their armour in chests that had not been unlocked for a while. If knighthood was their work, they were not doing it.

Nicholas looked across to where Idonia lounged in the late light. Her needlework was forgotten in her lap while she warmed her face in the blood-red sun.

‘When Adam delved and Eve span…’ Familiar words bouncing back from odd places. All was work since the fall. For the sake of woman, man must earn his bread. And yet she had the lighter end of it! Eve span, but to spin is easier than to dig. The spinner sits at home and eases her back often enough. A man must dig from morn to night or no crops will grow.

But he had wandered from the point, which it seemed he shared with John Ball, that dreary devil now returned to his kind. Never mind woman – what about the lords, what work did the lords to do? How had they come to be fed by the sons of Adam?

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